Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Families Facing Death: A Systems Lens

Blog post by Jenny Brown.

‘Chief among all taboo subjects is death. A high percentage of people die alone, locked into their own thoughts which they cannot communicate to others.’

 —Murray Bowen MD

Our upcoming workshop on a family systems understanding of loss and grief explores the variations in family reactions to death, the factors important to grieving and recovery, family of origin patterns of grieving and understanding the family emotional shock wave.

The following excerpt from my book, “Growing Yourself Up” tells some of the story of my own family of origin’s reaction to death. It illustrates an example of a family system closing up in the face of loss.

“The most painful time in my life to date was the death of my mother to breast cancer when she was just 54 years old. Her untimely loss was heart wrenching, but alongside her painful death there is another level of sadness for me. This is the layer of how her death was handled in our family. I remember being in denial about her imminent death right up to her last ambulance ride to hospital. None of our family talked about her dying and how we were going to support each other.

My mother kept up a courageous presence and spoke of future plans. My father went on a planned trip to a sporting event with his male friends a fortnight before she died. All of us were using distance to cope with what was too painful to confront. We just shut out the facts and the aching emotions in order to keep moving forward. Well-meaning friends made efforts to talk with me about my mother’s deteriorating condition and the prospect of her death being near but I didn’t want any part in such pessimistic conversation.

Shutting down feelings in order to move on

When I look at the generations of my mother’s and father’s families, I can see that this stoic way of dealing with death goes back a long way. Children were not included in funerals, adults did not show their distress in front of others and normal routines were resumed as soon as the funeral was over. This pattern of moving on without dwelling on loss has helped the family to survive in many ways. When my dad’s father died suddenly at the age of 50 of a heart attack, it was vital for my father to quickly take the reins of the family business to prevent financial ruin for himself and his mother. Having just come through the Great Depression, financial survival took precedence over dealing with personal pain. Similarly, when my mother’s eldest brother died as a young child, the whole society was rebuilding from the loss of a generation of young men in World War I. People had to find a way to move on without falling into despair or having their livelihoods collapse.

Moving so far in the direction of shutting off feelings to survive has had its cost. I regret that I could never talk to my mother about what she was going through. It would have helped to have been able to cry together. The family could have been a supportive resource if individuals were able to balance their efforts to keep going with time to talk with each other about our struggles in the midst of grief. Thirty years later I can still awaken the deep hurt and helplessness that I felt after Mum’s death, hearing my father crying in his bed at night and calling out my mother’s name. I knew how to support him through busily helping with tasks but I had no idea how to talk to him about our shared loss. The shockwave of my mother’s death and the limits to being able to grieve openly were evident in my family for a long while. Some family members went through some significant emotional symptoms and there are still traces of anger and blame from this time.”

Reading Bowen’s reflections on how families can best open up their system in the face of death gives food for thought on alternate ways that this generation of my family can strive to manage grief; remembering of course that this is not a simple formula but requires an effort in all of life to manage strong emotions while staying in contact with important others.

*The following Bowen Theory ideas are from an excerpt of a book chapter: Bowen Family Systems and Grief : Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery:

“Bowen wrote about the role of rituals of grieving, such as funerals, in assisting a grieving family. He stressed the importance of making as much contact with as many people as possible as opposed to the anxious drive to shut down and avoid people as a coping mechanism:

The goal is to bring the entire family system into the closest possible contact with death in the presence of the total friendship system and to lend a helping hand to the anxious people who would rather run than face a funeral.

Bowen thought that funerals could provide an opportunity to resolve emotional attachments and for people to define themselves more openly to other family members by being present and accounted for; To get alongside other family members, even those who may have become estranged, is an opportunity for growth. It enables people to be clear that they choose to be present with others even when emotions are charged, that they have a part to play in the family and that they are not willing to allow themselves to avoid difficult times. In contrast to taking up the opportunity to be in contact with family members after a death, any patterns of relating that serve to deny death can prolong unresolved attachment issues for family members well into the future.

The following is a summary of Bowen’s suggestion using a family systems lens for managing a death of a family member:

  • Visit dying family members as often as possible
  • Include children (children aren’t hurt by exposure to death as much as they are hurt by the anxiety of survivors.)
  • Involve as many extended family as possible
  • Open caskets in order to provide as much contact between the dead and living as possible.
  • Prompt obituary notices and communication with relatives and friends.

Conclusion

Bowen’s family systems theory provides a road map to better understand the variations in recovery from death and loss for different family members and between different families. Considering the functional significance of the family member who has died or is dying, along with the differences in emotional maturity that every family inherits, can assist a worker to bring greater awareness and compassion to the helping process. In coming alongside those who are mourning, without expectations of what stage they should be experiencing, the helper works to understand the unique set of challenges they are facing in their family. In so doing, the helper is better able to assist family members to appreciate what they are up against in terms of the shock wave effect and to identify their family’s patterns for dealing with substantial upset. This broad theory of understanding the patterns of families in response to life challenges in this anxious world can also assist the worker to understand better their experience of their own family as a system. The bigger picture in view goes beyond the individual experience to the interdependence of each family member. This lens makes it easier to get past blaming those who manage stress through over controlling or avoidance and to have an appreciation of how each person is affected by and affecting the responses of the others.”

References:

Bowen M.,  “Family Reaction to Death” in, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (New York: Aronson, 1978)

Brown, J. “Old Age & Facing Death: denial or honest preparation” in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships (Wollombi: Exisle, 2012) 

Brown, J. “Bowen Family Systems and Grief . Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery.” published  in “Loss and recovery responding to grief with the compassion of Christ and the skills of all Gods people.” Ed. Wesley M, Mosaic press, 2012.

*Bowen Family Systems and Grief

Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery

Jenny Brown This article (in this excerpt form) is published as a chapter in “Loss and recovery: responding to grief with the compassion of Christ and the skills of all Gods people.” Ed. Wesley M, Mosaic press, 2012.

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